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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Supreme Court elections elsewhere: not Minnesota nice

A sharp-eyed reader noting our headline that said that this year’s appellate races offered few surprises wrote to remind me about Supreme Court races in other states. In a Mississippi race that shows where John Grisham gets his ideas, three justices running for second, eight-year terms lost: Chief Justice Jim Smith lost to Jim Kitchens, Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. lost to Randy “Bubba” Pierce, and Justice Chuck Easley lost to David Chandler. A fourth, Justice Ann Lamar, who was appointed last year by Gov. Haley Barbour, won her race. Diaz was indicted in 2003 in what he calls a political prosecution in connection with a loan to defray campaign debts, and acquitted. He claimed to have been targeted for defeat by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Oddly, the Mississippi Business and Industry Political Education Committee gave Smith a 72 % rating while giving Easley and Diaz 27 and 28 % respectively.The Smith-Kitchens race reportedly cost over $1 million.

In Michigan, Chief Justice Clifford Taylor was defeated by Judge Anne Hathaway, a nominee of the Democratic Party. Reports are Taylor raised over $1.7 million but Hathaway had Bruce Springsteen at a “Vote for Change” concert in which she said her opponent's judicial philosophy is "a death trap, a suicide rap..." An October television ad claimed that Taylor fell asleep during oral argument, which he denied.

In West Virginia, former Chief Justice Elliot Maynard didn’t survive a primary after pictures of him vacationing in Monte Carlo with a business executive who had a pending case came to light. The case, Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Company, is awaiting a possible grant of certiorari from the U.S. Supreme Court over whether another West Virginia Supreme Court justice must step aside in the case. The Caperton plaintiffs won a $50 million fraud verdict against Massey but the West Virginia court has twice set aside the verdict by a 3-2 majority. According to the New York Times, Justice Brent D. Benjamin, both times a member of the Caperton majority, won his seat with the help of more than $3 million from the same Massey executive who took the former chief justice to Monte Carlo but has refused to recuse himself from cases involving Massey. The Times says the Caperton case turns largely on whether millions of dollars in campaign support from an interested party creates an appearance of impropriety so strong that recusal is required. Two other cases involving West Virginia are pending at the Supreme Court, both of which involve the state’s odd law that denies companies a right to appeal punitive damage awards.)

Some of these justices may have been turned out of office deservedly, but our reader reminds us, brace yourselves, Minnesotans, for 2010 when a majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court will be on the ballot.

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